Headscarves, ambassadors and a new era in Turkish diplomacy
The recent appointment of Merve Kavakci, 48, as Turkish ambassador to Malaysia is very meaningful and symbolic, not only because she is the first Turkish envoy to wear a headscarf, but also due to her years-long advocacy of women’s rights.
On May 2, 1999, she wore her headscarf to take her oath of office as an MP following her election as Istanbul deputy of the conservative Virtue Party (FP). She was prevented from taking her oath amid chants of “get out.” Then-Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said Parliament “isn’t a place to challenge the state. Please bring this lady into line.” She was expelled from Parliament and lost her citizenship.
Back then, when the headscarf was banned, her act was deemed a challenge to the state and a threat to Turkish secularism. She went to America and gained US citizenship. Before entering Turkish politics, Harvard graduate Kavakci was a professor at George Washington University and Howard University in Washington. Her academic position played a significant role in gaining US citizenship. After 18 years, she was given back her Turkish citizenship.
In the 1980s, women in Turkey were banned from wearing headscarves when working in the public sector. This included civil service, educational and political institutions. The ban was extended to all universities in 1997. Despite massive protests across Turkey, the ban stayed in place for years.
Ayse Sayan is the second Turkish ambassador to wear a headscarf after Kavakci. Sayan, the sister of Family Minister Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya, has been appointed envoy to Kuwait. Kavakci and Sayan symbolize women’s historical struggle for equality in Turkish politics and diplomacy.
Kavakci’s sister Ravza Kavakci Han, who also wears a headscarf, is an MP for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). In 2015, in her oath-taking ceremony, Han wore the same headscarf and a similar outfit when her sister was ejected from Parliament in 1999. Kavakci’s appointment makes Turkey the second major Muslim nation after Iran to send a female ambassador to Malaysia.
Ayse Sayan is the second Turkish ambassador to wear a headscarf after Kavakci. Sayan, the sister of Family Minister Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya, has been appointed envoy to Kuwait. Kavakci and Sayan symbolize women’s historical struggle for equality in Turkish politics and diplomacy, and have become voices for women’s leadership and empowerment.
A diplomat’s life and work are not easy; they are even harder for women in the patriarchal nature of politics. I wish Kavakci and Sayan the best in their new posts, and hope that they will be beacons for other Turkish female would-be politicians and diplomats.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly in issues regarding Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. She can be reached on Twitter @SinemCngz